Libya, Post-Election/ Tide Turning in Syria?

Jul 19, 2012


Update from AIJAC

July 19, 2012
Number 07/12 #04

This Update focuses primarily on the aftermath of the election in Libya earlier this month, but also looks at the apparent turn of battle in Syria, with rebel forces now engaging in extended battles with the regime in Damascus and a suicide bombing overnight killing several key regime figures – including the Defence Minister and President Assad’s brother-in-law – and wounding others, including the Intelligence Chief and Interior Minister.

First up is a general analysis of what happened in Libya in the election on July 7 – where Islamist candidates did considerably worse than most had predicted – from Libya based journalist Umar Khan. He says that the division of the Libyan political parties into “conservative” and “liberal” does not really work, and in fact, no party in Libya can be considered liberal if you look at their manifestos. He notes that the winning National Forces Alliances led by former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril is still not in a position to govern effectively without support from Islamist groupings, and will face huge challenges, including “ratification of the constitution, working and effective local councils, proliferation of arms, forming a national army, dissolving the militias, ending regional clashes, controlling the border, and reconciliation.” For all the details about the complex post-election reality in Libya, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a scholar at Oxford University, examines why the Islamists did less well in Libya than in most other recent Middle Eastern elections, and less well than many scholars, including al-Tamami himself, had predicted. He cites a variety of factors including the fact that the Islamist were seen in part as representing foreign, especially Qatari, influence, and were late-comers to the opposition to Gaddafi. Like Khan, he also stresses that dichotomies drawn between “liberals” and “Islamists” generally are not very applicable to Libya, but goes on to discuss the influence of localism and demands for regional autonomy in Libya. For his conclusions and analysis on this issue and all of the above, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, former US Presidential candidate Senator John McCain uses the positive outcome in Libya to make the case for international intervention in Syria.

Finally, noted scholar Barry Rubin offers his insights into signs that the tide appears to be turning against the Assad regime in Syria. Considering what might happen if the regime does fall, Rubin notes that Syria is a much less homogenous society than Egypt and Tunisia, and discusses the various ethnic groups making up the Syrian population. He descibes this diversity and some other factors – including the potential ability of both Alawites and Kurds to hold out against a central government they do not like in the corners of the country where they predominate – which will decide what a new government in Damascus might look like. For his discussion in full,  CLICK HERE.

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The Future of Libya after Elections

Umar Khan    

Fikr Forum, July 13, 2012

Judgment of the success of Libya’s election can be determined by the single fact that 62% of the total electorate exercised their right to vote on July 7th. The sporadic disruptions from either the federalists or from those protesting the allocations of seats had an impact on the turnout, but it also helped the people of Libya stand up to anarchy. It was the people’s commitment that finally brought the nation to its first vote in over four decades, just nine months after the announcement of liberation.

According to early trends in election results, Mahmoud Jibril’s relatively liberal alliance of “58” parties, the National Forces Alliance (NFA), was leading in the party lists, but as results for the individual seats are starting to come in, the whole scenario has begun to change. The surprise in the Libyan elections is not how Jibril’s alliance got so many seats, but how some of the main parties, predicted to do well, performed so poorly.

The politics in Libya is different than that of its neighboring countries and the political parties cannot simply be classified as liberal or conservative. In fact, none of the parties can be considered “liberal” if only their manifestoes are considered. The reason behind the success and failure of various candidates is principally due to the presence or absence of familiar faces in the background of their campaign posters.

Despite underperforming in the party lists, the Islamists, primarily represented by the Muslim Brotherhood linked Justice and Construction Party (JCP), recovered from this loss by winning the seats of individual candidates. Once confident of gaining 60 percent of the total seats, the Islamists now expect the national congress to hang in an even balance unless a coalition is formed between the parties opposing Jibril and his alliance. With such a coalition in opposition to Jibril’s coalition, the JCP expects to gain around 55 seats, while the coalition is hopeful of getting around 110 seats between them. Thus, even if the NFA is considered a liberal force along with the National Front Party, it is unlikely that they will be in a position to dictate any policy or pass any legislation with ease.

The electoral system of Libya is complicated and was devised in a way to ensure that no one group or party is allowed a majority to dictate its ideology or policy during the transitional phase. The national congress, once elected, will be tasked to map out a mechanism to hold elections for the 60 member constitutional committee to draft Libya’s new constitution. The constitutional committee will be comprised of 20 members from each region of Libya: Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica. Originally, the committee was to be appointed by the national congress, but just days before the elections the National Transitional Council (NTC) passed an amendment that addressed the concerns of many in the eastern region over seat allocation; this amendment helped improve the overall turnout on the day of voting. The congress will also appoint a new interim government to run the affairs of the country until general elections take place by the end of 2013.

While predominant challenges facing the national congress include the ratification of the constitution, working and effective local councils, proliferation of arms, forming a national army, dissolving the militias, ending regional clashes, controlling the border, and reconciliation; legitimacy will likely be the biggest factor to work in their favor, which is something that the previous ruling council, the NTC, lacked.

The people’s mandate is vital to the legitimacy of the new government. Its value in helping the national congress solve national issues can be understood through the example of federalism. The federalists, after attacking buildings of the electoral commission and threatening to use violence, have now offered to dissolve their Cyrenaica Transitional Council in wake of the successful elections, stating that the “people of Libya have spoken.” The national congress will rely heavily on its mandate to solve the outstanding problems of Libya. However, issues such as reconciliation and remaining loyalist pockets will require more than the conventional politics. With most of the militia adamant about “sweeping” areas such as Bani Walid and, more broadly, areas east of Tripoli, it will be an arduous task to go about reconciliation without further bloodshed.

The other major challenge facing the elected national congress will be finding a way to rein in the militias. Many of the armed brigades have joined the interior ministry forces, while some of the others have joined the national army. The remaining brigades, as a separate body, are working in coordination with the ministries. The challenge will be to offer the militias a worthy alternative to tempt them back into civilian life.

The emergence of strong militias in cities across Libya posed great difficulties for the NTC and the lack of popular support for the transitional council enabled these regional militias to take advantage of the situation. Various brigade commanders, on separate occasions, have said that they will only surrender arms once the security apparatus is effective enough to provide protection for the people. The formation of a proper national army will facilitate the dissolution of different brigades and can be achieved by supporting the existing structure in terms of funding and authority.

The cities of Misurata and Zintan, which emerged as the big players in the Libyan revolution, had significant influence on the interim government due to its strong militia backing. Widely believed to be a result of bargaining, a minister from each of the two cities was awarded the influential roles of Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior. However, this is subject to change, as popular support will now be the crucial and decisive factor for congress in solving these sensitive issues.

Umar Khan is journalist and writer based in Libya, focusing on Libyan political and security developments.

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Rethinking Libya

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The American Spectator, July 12, 2012 

Pace the expectations of numerous commentators, including my own, Islamist factions have not emerged to dominate the Libyan election results. Instead, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) — a coalition led by the former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril — has outmaneuvered the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Watan party led by Abdelhakim Belhadj, who once headed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that was affiliated with al Qaeda.

The Islamist factions are hoping to dominate the political process through the remaining 120 seats in the Libyan congress open to candidates who are at least nominally independent, but tally results so far suggest that even in areas where Islamists are thought to have stronger influence than in the rest of the country (e.g. the eastern city of Darna), the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party performed poorly against the NFA.

For a fuller overview of results, see an online report by the Libya Herald, which illustrates that the defeat was even more crushing for the al-Watan party.

All this indicates my assessment last October that “it is becoming increasingly apparent that Islamism will be the dominant political force in the country” has turned out to be incorrect.

It was not unreasonable to express concerns regarding the influence the likes of Belhadj initially held during the interim period under the National Transitional Council (NTC), but where did I get Libya wrong?

Islamists and foreign influence: It appears that I underestimated the stigma associated with ties to foreign powers for Islamists. I noted this point in an article I wrote on the interim cabinet appointments by the NTC that excluded Islamists, a move that was at least partly intended as a rebuke for Qatar, which has been repeatedly accused by Libyan officials of backing Islamist militants and circumventing the NTC in provision of aid.

This chiding of perceived excessive interference by Qatar clearly resonated with popular sentiment in Libya, and the failure on the part of Belhadj and his ilk to distance themselves from ties to Qatar has come at a great cost.

The same applies for the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya: The support lent by Qatar to the Brotherhood in Egypt, with al-Jazeera‘s sycophantic coverage of the Islamist organization and its presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi the most obvious sign, would have been all too apparent to Libyan voters.

The evidence here vindicates my point last year about Qatar’s pro-Sunni Islamist agenda in the Arab Spring, for which I was derided by Michael Hughes as a “neoconservative” in the Huffington Post, who drew attention to Qatari media coverage of Saudi Arabia in 2002 (a complete red herring).

In hindsight, I should have foreseen the impact of the stigma of being seen as agents of foreign powers by comparison with developments in Iraqi politics since 2005, where the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — a Shi’ite political faction — lost much support in the 2009 provincial elections in the face of the nationalist platform of Nouri al-Maliki.

ISCI, previously known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, felt compelled to change its name amid widespread suspicions of being an agent for Iranian interests.

In any case, it should also be noted that the Brotherhood in particular is tainted by an image of having not participated in the uprising against Gaddafi. Having reached some sort of reconciliation with the dictator from 2003 onwards, the Islamist group boycotted an opposition conference in London in 2005 that called for the overthrow of Gaddafi.

False polarizing dichotomies: In earlier articles I wrote on Libya, I think it is fair to say that I was too focused on an apparent Islamist-Liberal dichotomy. For example, I once drew on a Wall Street Journal piece to draw a sharp contrast between supposedly secular and liberal Berbers and an Islamist-inclined Arab population. Later, however, I realized that such a picture was not quite accurate, and is often the result of an impression given by Berber activists who address Western audiences.

During the Libyan elections, it has become commonplace to see Jibril’s NFA described as a “liberal” bloc. Yet Jibril himself has insisted that the NFA espouses neither secularism nor liberalism, and views Islamic law as a main source for legislation, which parallels the words of Mustafa Abdul Jalil — the head of the NTC — last year.

Again, analogy with Iraqi politics is useful here, where one often finds that the Iraqi National Movement (INM) bloc led by Ayad Allawi is described as “secular.” In truth, INM is a very broad and loose coalition of parties — just as Jibril’s bloc reportedly comprises around 60 parties — encompassing some secular-minded Sunni and Shi’a in Baghdad, together with Sunni Islamists.

In a recent interview, Jibril stressed that he would be willing to form a coalition government with the Muslim Brotherhood, pointing to the need for “national unity.” While Brotherhood members in Libya have now accused Jibril of engaging in unfair electoral tactics, there is little they can do but try to form a coalition agreement with Jibril’s bloc.

The emerging picture is therefore as follows: As in Iraq, Islamic religious norms will certainly remain a part of daily life in Libya and Islamists — in areas where they wield influence — may organize their own local militias to enforce aspects of Shari’a, but it is unlikely that there will be implementation of a full-blown Islamist agenda on a national level by the government, which will probably be open to engagement by the West.

More generally, an important lesson to draw here is to avoid sensationalism in analyzing developments in Libya, which is yet another parallel with the situation in Iraq and media coverage of events there.

The problem of clashes between competing local militias and tribes is unlikely to be fully reined in for quite some time, while torture and lack of respect for the rule of law will probably remain commonplace.

However, larger-scale reprisals against perceived supporters of Gaddafi’s regime (e.g. the Tuareg, who have consequently fled south into Mali) were already carried out and completed quite some time ago.

Further, one should avoid making too much out of the autonomist movement in eastern Libya, which has welcomed Jibril’s success in the elections and is hoping for a “constructive dialogue” with him on the issue of autonomy, condemning the anti-electoral violence committed by some protesters in the run-up to the elections. The question of autonomy will either be resolved or remain in limbo, and it is unlikely to lead to secession from Libya on the part of Cyrenaica.

What many reports have termed a “localism” trend in the country since the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime should be taken into consideration, yet as in Iraq, the need to preserve an infrastructure for the vital oil industry will prevent a fragmentation of the nation into mini-states along the lines of Dark Age Greece (i.e. the period between the Bronze Age collapse and the appearance of the Homeric epics).

To sum up: Libya is doing much better than I expected. The academic and pundit Hussein Ibish, who on reading my piece “Libya Heading Towards Islamism” suggested that I might be overestimating the strength of the Islamists, got it right. I got it wrong.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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Will the Rebels Win Syria’s Civil War and What That Means

by Barry Rubin

Pajamas Media, July 17, 2012 

The tide seems to be turning in Syria. While the civil war is far from over, the regime is clearly weakening; the rebels are expanding their operations and effectiveness. There have also been more high-level defections. What does this mean and why is this happening?

There are three main factors that are making a rebel victory seem more likely.

First, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Turkey’s facilitation and U.S. coordination, are sending arms to the opposition.

Second, the regime has been rushing the same trusted units around the country to put down upsurges. After many months of battle, these forces are getting tired and stretched thin.

Third, President Bashar al-Assad really has nothing to offer the opposition. He won’t leave and he can’t share power. His strategy of brutal suppression and large-scale killing can neither make the opposition surrender nor wipe it out. Even if he kills civilians and demonstrators, the rebel military forces can pull back to attack another day.

Even though the fighting may go on for months, then, it is time to start assessing what outcomes might look like. Here are some suggestions:

–Ethnic massacres? While there have been reports of such actions—the regime killing Sunni Muslims; the opposition killing Alawites and Christians—what we’ve seen already might be nothing compared to what is to come. Such murders might take place during the civil war or after it ends.

–An Alawite fortress? Assad has built up his defenses in northwest Syria where most of the Alawites live to make a last stand or to try to hold out. How would such a final phase in the war go and could Assad keep the rebels from taking this stronghold?

–Obama Administration bragging rights? We’ve already had leaks about U.S. covert involvement in the anti-Assad effort. If the rebels seem to be winning or do in fact win the war before November, the White House will claim Syria as proof of its tough, triumphant foreign policy. (The elections in Libya, in which reportedly the Islamists were held off by a U.S.-backed government, will be cited as another example of success.)

–But at great risk. What if the Obama Administration increasingly claims credit for regime change in Syria and then has to take blame for massacres or an Islamist takeover?

–The Kurdish factor. Syria’s Kurds have essentially walled off their northeast section of the country. Their armed militia, helped by their compatriots in Iraq, can hold out against all but the most concerted force. The Kurds generally view the regime as repressive Arab nationalists while they see the opposition as Islamists and Arab nationalists. Would a new regime in Damascus make a deal with them for autonomy, or would it be tempted to try to conquer the area? If so, how would the opposition’s Western backers react to such an assault?

–And then there’s the biggest question of all: Who among the opposition forces would take power? Syria is quite different from such relatively homogeneous countries as Egypt and Tunisia. Let’s just list the different groupings:

Alawites now rule and in general support the regime. The treatment of the Alawites—who pretend to be Shia Muslims but really aren’t Muslims at all—would be a key indicator for a new regime. Would it seek conciliation or would it massacre large numbers of them? Unless Assad can hold out in the northwest, the Alawites will have little role in a post-Assad Syria.

Christians also generally support the regime because they fear Islamists taking power. Will they face massacres and flee the country or will the new regime work to accommodate them?

Alawites and Christians together number more than one-fourth of the country’s population.

The Kurds have been discussed above. Their goal is autonomy, one that a new central government could meet but will it want to grant them such status?

The Druze, who live in the southwest of the country, have not played a major role in the rebellion. They tend to accommodate themselves to the status quo. Will they organize communally and seek some autonomy? The Druze strategy is of special interest to Israel since they live closer to the Golan Heights and, indeed, Israel rules a Druze population there most of whose members identify as Syrians. Would a new regime’s treatment of the Druze make the Golan Heights’ residents more rebellious against Israel or more eager to remain under Israeli rule? Israel’s military intelligence commander has already warned of the danger of jihadists infiltrating into the border area, though one might add that Israel already has strong defenses in place there that would stop any cross-border attacks, a contrast of course with the Sinai.

And finally there are the Sunni Muslim Arabs who comprise about 60 percent of the population. As a group they would be the new rulers. But they are very much divided among themselves. On one hand there are the Islamists, both Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists; on the other hand there are urban moderates who are more proportionately numerous and politically astute than their Egyptian counterparts. Who will get the upper hand?

Yet even that is an incomplete inventory. In addition, there are many rural Sunni Arabs who could be described as traditionalists, who want a socially conservative state but could swing in either direction politically.

Last and certainly not least are the military officers who deserted Assad’s army and now run much of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). They can be described as both technocrats and as Arab nationalists in varying degrees. Would they impose themselves on a new government?

The exile groups, including the U.S. backed Syrian National Council (SNC) seem to have little influence and prestige within the country. Would the Obama Administration and others try to force this Brotherhood-dominated group onto those who did the fighting?

At some point, one side or the other will win and at this time that winning side seems to be the opposition. It will establish a new central government in Damascus. That government will have to complete the conquest of the Alawite region and to decide on whether to grant some autonomy to the Kurds. A huge problem is whether it can, or wants to, prevent ethnic massacres. And of course there will be the question of who, and which political philosophy, will rule. I do not think Syria is going to fall apart. Everybody pretty much has a vested interest in the survival of the state as a whole, just as happened with Iraq.

As you can see there are many questions and unknowns about Syria’s future. These apply regardless of the timing of any rebel victory, and they are going to be major factors affecting the Middle East over the coming decades.

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